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Free to Fly

Free to Fly

Thirteen years ago, Amar Lal and his family were bonded labourers working on the roads of Haryana. The provisions of the Indian Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 set them free, giving them a new life.
Neha Dixit

Bengali translation

Amar Lal remembers the day clearly though nearly 13 years have passed. After all, that was when his life changed, when he was rescued from a life that seemed doomed to bonded labour along with his three brothers, two sisters, and parents. But he still closes his eyes from time to time to relive the nightly visits to his makeshift camp from the worksite.
On that day in 2001, six-year-old Amar was working at a telephone line project near Virat Nagar in Haryana. He was breaking stones with his father, as always, to refill a road dug up to lay a telephone line.
“The handle of the hammer was as long as my legs and very heavy,” he recalls. “It was like a competition between me and my brother, who could lift it in three attempts. Sometimes we both would hold the hammer and my elder sister would hold the stone as we struck it. That afternoon too, we were playing this game after lunch. I don’t remember the month as for the longest time I did not know that there were any months in a year.”
It was blazing hot but the shadow of the Aravalli hills on the roadside gave the workers some relief. A convoy of three cars drove up and stopped next to Amar and his siblings. A bearded man, tall and dressed in white kurta-pyjamas, got down with a few other men and one woman. He patted Amar on the head and asked him to get up.
He then asked, “Do you like this work or do you want to study?” Amar did not answer. The man turned to his father, sitting next to them. Amar does not recollect what happened after that, except that he was given some bananas to eat while a sub-inspector of police and more government officials arrived. They were later taken to an ashram in Virat Nagar.
Amar’s family are nomadic Banjaras. They were bonded by debt to labour for a stone quarry contractor called Birju for three decades. They went wherever the contractor told them—a group of 20 families—to go.
Amar’s father Bishen Lal cannot recollect at what point he realised that they were slaves. These questions, or the possibility of these questions, never occurred to him or his family. Bishen Lal was also unclear about the debt to Birju. “Five less twenty” was what he said when I asked him once, but he did not know when his father had borrowed money from Birju’s father.
Amar remembers the mornings when his mother would make thick salted rotis—two for each member of the family—and then they would go to the main highway where they worked, digging for Rs.75 a day. Before that he has vivid memories of the family working in another stone quarry in Charkhi Dadri in Haryana’s Bhiwani district.
The Indian Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976 prohibits any service arising out of debt, including forced labour and bonded labour. The legal definition of “the bonded labour system” recognises force as including not only physical or legal elements, but also including deprivation of alternative choices, economic circumstances, and a derived compulsion to choose a particular course of action, such as providing underpaid or unpaid labour.
The Planning Commission’s latest survey suggests that it is predominantly debt that forces most of these people into bonded labour. The survey revealed that in 71 per cent of cases, loan was the reason for bondage and 92 per cent of those who took loans did so for consumption/food. The size of half of the loans was less than Rs.5,000. Loans aboveRs.10,000 were only six per cent of the total cases.
Almost 13 years later, Amar meets me in Bal Ashram, a child rehabilitation home in Burari, north Delhi.. He is small-built, swarthy and warm in aspect. He has a small face as well, with black, oiled, neatly parted hair, like that of boys who don’t trouble their mothers while getting ready for school. He is wearing a white shirt, newer than his black trousers, with three pens in his right chest pocket: green, red and blue. He carries a notebook with several worn pages tucked in it.
“Hello, didi,” he says with an endearing nervousness in his voice, as he sees me approaching the table he is sitting at under a jute canopy, the meeting place in Bal Ashram.
“Seventeen-and-a-half” is his age, he tells me. Four months ago, he enrolled for a B. A. LL. B.—a five-year integrated course in law—at the Janhit College of Law in Greater Noida, 30 kilometres from Delhi. The transition of the child labourer from that afternoon in 2001 to this boy has been a long and remarkable one. It shows that when the state works, the results can be transformative.
Amar talks in a stream-of-consciousness way: sometimes rehearsed answers clubbed with questions and other answers to build a larger, profound argument. He starts: “There are 168 million child labourers in the world according to the International Labour Organisation. ILO, you know, na? It is a part of UNO. I have been reading a lot of its reports in the past. Janhit College has a nice library … it is the first actual library I have ever seen. When I learn computers, I will read all these reports in my room. I know computers but am yet to make my email id and Facebook account. Are you on Facebook?”
“Yes,” I reply. “So how did you escape the contractor; where is your family now?”
“Family is now in Jaipur, my parents and one of my brothers. The sisters are married now, both of them in Jodhpur, to two brothers from the same family. One of my brothers-in-law recently came to Delhi, even to my college. After that he also wants his son to be a lawyer.
“When he said son, I said, ‘why not daughter?’ You know the December 16 protests (against the Nirbhaya gang rape), they have still not opened eyes of many. Ladka-ladka, they keep chanting that. Even my parents: I keep telling them that it is my sisters who will always help them more than me or my brothers. They laugh it off. One day I had such a fierce fight with my father that he said that ‘you were better breaking stones. Law college is spoiling your family values’.”
As Amar breaks into his monologues, the excitement and the sense of wonder that accompanies them is infective. His passionate interests, his involvement in contemporary issues, and the beauty with which he unconsciously weaves them all together is remarkable. It is a reminder that no issue worth fighting for is a battle in isolation.
Rakesh Sengar, the national coordinator of Bachpan Bachao Andolan—the child rights organisation that facilitated the family’s rescue and helped them avail of government benefits, with the assistance of some conscientious government officials under the Bonded Labour Act and Child Labour Act—tells me about that fateful afternoon.
“Kailash Satyarthi, the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, was on his way to Delhi when he saw Amar’s father and several kids working on the Jaipur-Delhi highway near Virat Nagar.” Kailash called the nearest sub-divisional magistrate to rescue the family. Along with Amar’s family, close to 101 bonded labourers—men, women and children—were rescued from stone quarries in the vicinity.
Rajasthan is the second-most mineral rich state in the country with marble, limestone and sandstone as its highest revenue earners. It makes over Rs.1,231 crore annually from the mining sector. According to a report by the Mines Labour Protection Campaign, mining is the second largest employment generator in the state after agriculture, with over three million workers. Ninety-five per cent of them are from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.
The mines are operated on leases from the government and are small-scale, localised enterprises worked entirely by manual labour. Mining practices are unscientific and primitive. Illegal mining is rampant, with contractors operating on expired leases, leases in the names of other persons (often referred to as benami), and mining in areas not covered by their leases. A number of leases have been granted to low caste lease-holders but are actually operated by people from the dominant castes in the area.
Birju the contractor was also a Banjara and one such lease-holder working in collaboration with upper caste feudal landlords and sharing the profits. In turn, he would play the mukhiya of a group of families of his caste and get them to work at stone quarries of his convenience and give them Rs.75 a day for expenses, a pittance for a family of eight.
The leases are broken up into small parcels, each mined under the supervision of a piece-rated worker who has a group of family-based, time-rated labourers working under him. A small percentage of labourers come from the villages in the mining area, but the vast majority are migrants who retain links with their areas of origin, like Bishen Lal, since the mines function for only about eight months a year.
The system of advances is widely prevalent, and both categories of workers borrow from the lease operator or the supervisor. The daily wage workers are paid a pittance and the women labourers are paid about half of what the men receive. There is also a significant incidence of child labour. According to a survey by the Mine Labour Protection Campaign, 97 per cent of sandstone workers in Jodhpur are indebted, a majority of them in bondage.
The debts are passed on from one family member to another, from one generation to the next, and can cause the labourer to be “sold” to another contractor.
When Amar was rescued, the centrally-sponsored scheme for the rehabilitation of bonded labour had been modified just a year before, in May 2000. Under the modified scheme, released bonded labourers were entitled to a grant of Rs.20,000 each. This expenditure is shared by the Central and state governments on a 50-50 basis. According to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, over three lakh bonded labourers have been rehabilitated in the 37 years since the Act was passed.
At the time of rescue, especially for child labourers, the sub-divisional magistrates and the labour inspectors often forbear to charge the employer under the Bonded Labour Act and proceed only under the Child Labour Act. This denies the rescued children rehabilitation, and they return to the circle of exploitation. They don’t have many options in the absence of a rehabilitation programme.
“In Amar’s case, because the Act was freshly modified, the sub-divisional magistrate—an extremely sensitive one—did not have to be informed of legal procedures, unlike most officials who keep getting confused between the sections of the law,” says Rakesh Sengar.
The family of eight got Rs.1,80,000 as compensation as a result.
When I speak to Bishen Lal over the phone, he tells me, “We used part of that money to buy a small patch of land so that we have a permanent roof over our heads.” After seven months of bureaucratic procedures, Bishen Lal finally managed one. “I never knew the feeling of having one’s own permanent house.”
He emphasises the word “permanent”. “It was a new life for me which I had never tasted, never imagined.”
Bishen Lal did not mind too much about the documentation work involved in these seven months. A ration card with the correct ages of all family members was the first document he acquired. “One official in the sub-divisional magistrate’s office was very helpful. He was approachable and wrote all applications and filled all forms for us. He informed us whenever we were required to be physically present for verification.”
Getting the reserved category certificate was also a task. “We need a gazetted officer who knew us to sign an affidavit to declare that we are from the Banjara community,” he says. This certificate helped them get benefits from several schemes that were meant for the Scheduled Caste community. “Since Birju was an influential man, the people from thebiraadari (community) were upset with me. It was difficult to get two witnesses to confirm that I am a Banjara; it is then that the fellow rescued bonded labourers stepped in for each other,” says Bishen Lal.
Around the same time, a convergence-based approach to the prevention of bonded labour was conceptualised. This was done by the central government in collaboration with the ILO and the National Human Rights Commission to prevent people from falling back into the exploitative practices of bondage for lack of resources. The pilot project was first tested in two districts of Tamil Nadu and then replicated by states like Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Haryana and Rajasthan.
Under this approach, Bishen Lal was registered for benefits under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission. This mission was primarily envisaged to create empowered and self-sustaining community organisations, taking into its fold households which are at risk of bondage and labourers who have been released from bondage.
Bishen Lal opened a grocery store under this scheme. With the help of more follow-ups from activists and government officials, Amar and his siblings were admitted to a National Child Labour Project (NCLP) school. These schools have been running since 1988 under the NCLP to help rescued child labourers be mainstreamed into formal schooling.
Amar and his siblings were in this school for over a year, where they got non-formal education till they joined schools with a more defined syllabus. After a year, Amar and his two brothers in the age group 5-8 were sent to a government school under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. His elder sisters in the age group 9-14 were sent for vocational training in stitching and embroidery. These projects were implemented under the supervision of the district magistrate of Jaipur. As of date, 7,311 special schools are in operation under the NCLP and about 8.52 lakh children have been mainstreamed into the formal education system.
The bonded labour system was abolished in India with the commencement of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. Any custom, agreement or other instrument by virtue of which a person is required to render any service as bonded labour became void. District magistrates have been entrusted with certain duties and responsibilities for implementing the provisions of this Act.
Vigilance committees at the district and sub-division levels are required to be constituted to monitor the identification and rehabilitation of bonded labourers. The Ministry of Labour and Employment launched a centrally-sponsored scheme in 1978 for rehabilitating bonded labourers. According to the ministry, out of the three lakh people identified as bonded labourers in 2011, 93 per cent had been rehabilitated under the scheme. The Planning Commission report on rehabilitated bonded labourers under the scheme suggests that the highest proportion of illiterate individuals among rehabilitated bonded labourers is in Rajasthan, Amar’s state, where 96.3 per cent are illiterate.
When I joined the NCLP school, I felt the same way as I feel now when I have joined the law college,” Amar tells me at a seminar in his college, where he presented a paper on the importance of consumer forums based on his campaign in some villages in Greater Noida. “I felt like I don’t know anything in this new world and yet I can do so much.”
Bishen Lal started making a living for himself and his family in the following year. Seeing Amar’s keenness for  education, he supported his schooling. “Maths is my favourite subject,” Amar tells me. His other siblings dropped out after class 10 and went for training in the repair of electrical appliances.
Birju was never prosecuted. According to the law, the employers at fault should be prosecuted in court. This means there should be a large number of employers against whom cases should be registered for keeping labour in bondage. But for various reasons, the cases are not initiated against all employers. A common reason cited is that if a case is registered against an employer, the released bonded labourer cannot be rehabilitated until the case is proved and settled, which may take years.
As per the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976, the released bonded labourers should be rehabilitated within the shortest possible time span, irrespective of whether the employer has been booked or not. However, employers are generally rich and influential people and enjoy political backing, which comes in the way of registering cases against them. There is hardly any correlation between the number of bonded labourers released and rehabilitated, and the number of cases registered against the employers. Only a small minority of employers have cases registered against them.
The Supreme Court has appointed a central action group in the National Human Rights Commission to hold regular meetings to sensitise workplaces in collaboration with the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
Amar was recognised for his vocational skills and his confidence in speaking on issues of child labour from a young age. In fact, at the age of 10, he was chosen to be the voice of the world out of schoolchildren at UNESCO’s High Level Group meeting in December 2007 in Dakar, Senegal.
At the seminar, he is all animation as he speaks about labour disputes in villages. The hall is packed with the fresh batch of law undergraduates and is brimming with energy. Amar steps on stage, adjusts the microphone on the dais, and begins. “People flash their guns and swords at the drop of a hat on shops (when there is a fight between shopkeeper and customer). They don’t know that there is a consumer forum. How will they know? Even I didn’t know. But the question is why can’t they know and make use of the consumer forum in villages? Just because they are illiterate? By that logic all illiterates should be afraid of making use of constitutional laws. This has to change.”
As he stops, he is greeted with loud applause. Arun Gupta, Aman’s professor who teaches him history, later tells me, “Amar’s questions are intriguing. He connects with his community and his bonded labour background. He is not afraid to ask things that he does not know and is not ashamed that he doesn’t know.”
When I ask Amar about his future plans, he tells me, “I have to fight against child marriage and child labour. After the December 16 protests, several people were talking about lowering the age of consent. But did those people think about all the young girls who are married off at very young ages? It will close all doors for them to say no to such marriages. What is more important, sex or saving lives?”
He stops, expecting an answer from me. Amar has participated in a number of December 16 protests and is very passionate about the cause. Finding myself in the dock with Amar on the other side, I try to dodge the question. I ask, “Did you discuss this with your law professors?”
He replies, “It is B. A. LL. B., so right now we are studying history: ancient Indian history and sociology and economics, nafaa-nuksaan. Economics is a new experience. Everything—in fact child labour also—can be linked to it. I feel my understanding of the issue was lacking so much without the economic angle.
“I always thought my family, my caste—they produce too many kids and think it is their tradition to work like slaves and they never fought or resisted till the day Kailashji met us. But now, I know that resisting is not easy. Like we say women should not put up with their husbands’ beatings but where will they go if they don’t earn? My father thought at least the family is getting Rs 75 and a place to stay and accepted it as his life. Had the government not helped him with money, he could have never changed his life. Do you have an email id? I will write an essay and send it to you once I create my email id.”
Amar, in his passionate, activist avatar, has over the years created a self-image. When I ask him which his favourite film is, he says, “I don’t watch films. They are useless.”
I insist, “Any film that you had watched last?”
3 Idiots.  I like Aamir Khan. He does films with a message.”
I throw some more scrapbook questions. “Which is your favourite food?”
“Anything. So many child labourers don’t even get one full meal a day.” I feel adequately guilty.
As I leave, Amar makes me promise to get my laptop next time so that he can make a Facebook account.
The means are available and the provisions are clearly spelt out, but the devil, as always, seems to be in the implementation, in the will to ensure that things will work. If it worked with one Amar Lal, why can’t it work with the thousands of other Amar Lals out there?

Published by Fountaink magazine on February 4, 2014
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